I got my degree in Art History from a small college of about 3,000 students in Central Pennsylvania. By the time I was done, I had probably only seen an incredibly small fraction of the works I wrote about, maybe one or two on day trips to New York or Washington DC. For many art historians, this is probably the case. Because the majority of objects of art history are paintings and sculptures, a good-enough sort of analysis can be conducted based on photographs and contextualizing historical information. Outside of very close investigations into underpainting, verso inscriptions, and other material quirks, most times a high quality photograph will do if you set out to write an analysis of a visual work, or at least we convince ourselves it does to keep the practice of Art History remotely sustainable and accessible.
Then, for my senior year thesis project, I moved on to writing about the Conceptual Art movement of the 1960s and 70s and its prefiguration in movements like Fluxus and Gutai. Oftentimes, finding photographs of the works became a challenge and even fewer were still intact or had been re-enacted in the time since the original exhibitions discussed in Lucy Lippard’s Six Years. Six Years is an incredibly interesting book because it is halfway between formal archive and personal scrapbook, a close-read of one perspective on what it was like to identify and formalize an artistic sensibility and mold it, often with her own two hands, into a program of exhibitions. Lippard frequently remade conceptual art pieces on the spot for her “numbers shows,” and despite her impressive archiving skills evident in the text, these great efforts of combined curating and art making usually ended up evading thorough photographic documentation. Each grainy, black and white, mostly unspecific photo I could find and tentatively identify a few of the artworks in was a blessing.
These movements in the 1950s, 60s and 70s were about accessibility in many ways, attacking the institution of art and challenging it on why groups of people, practices, subject matter, materials and so on were excluded. Who gets to make art? Who gets to see it? What can art be made out of? How much should it cost to make art? How much should it cost to buy it? What art is bought? Who survives? Who ends up in the history books? These efforts were important and needed, but in many cases ended up eventually foiled. The documentation of the work, necessary for an ephemeral practice to establish itself and survive in the current model of art history, became the new thing for museums to put a price sticker on and take in as, essentially, a visual art piece. This is a process most artists in these movements wanted to avoid. An aesthetic of conceptual artworks developed, some were considered formally attractive while others were not. Conceptual works were having their political teeth pulled, and the resulting visual documentation came to overshadow the practice itself.
So, despite all of its efforts, was Conceptual Art any more accessible to me, in the spring of 2013, than high Renaissance painting, with its expensive pigments and highly codified subject matter and iconography, was? It was even more mysterious and frustrating, utterly ungraspable at times. And I see the same thing happening to net art. Despite originating with an open and democratic spirit in a dispersed, popular medium, what was playable one day is a collection of broken links and outdated plugins the next, and you have to pull together your own pseudo-experience of the work through what links of documentation and screenshots are still live, somewhere out there.
Conceptual Art threw itself on its own sword, in some cases, to be canonized. It’s why we have beautiful, haunting images to remember Ana Mendieta’s vital performance works by. Of course, these photographs are still owned and controlled by major art institutions for the most part, unlike the actual ephemeral works which defy any control or ownership. Many pieces of net art looked back at this result and in some cases tried to go one turn more radical. For a lot of these projects you have to really dig and have a stroke of luck on top of that to find more information than a screenshot and a paragraph long blurb.
This problem is one of practical accessibility, the ability to access a work or a simulation of it well enough to gain a sufficient understanding of it for your purposes. This accessibility is often vital for institutional support, and eventual historicization. It’s tough to argue that something there’s very little actual evidence of was important, after all. This form of accessibility is often understood as a pressing emergency facing games preservation. And it’s big. Scarily big most of the time. We always seem on the brink of losing whole catalogues of influential and important work unless hobbyist emulation experts step in, and are usually only thanked with legal action for their work. While it is a legal gray area, in the practical sense, putting their level of skill and thoroughness into the practice of emulation is absolutely vital for as long as those who “own” these games (often companies which developers and programmers on the original project have long since left) continue to sit on their hands.
But accessibility can be highly multifaceted, especially with a medium like games that isn’t fully revealed unless someone starts playing it. The inaccessibility of painting, as a subject, has been mitigated by a proliferation of high-quality images of canonized works, and printed and redistributed books by researchers that provide historical and aesthetic context for images that are often dense and confusing to contemporary viewers. Videogames, unlike painting, were born reproducible, digital, mass produced, and popularly distributed as a matter of course, but in many ways they’re a lot less accessible than art.
Usually subject matter is the main concern in discussing why games are inaccessible, but that strikes me as kind of superficial. Painting, too, was mostly considered to be by men, for men for great chunks of history, and yet many women made their way as creators, appreciators and critics of the arts. The expectation that I will want to play a game that’s about a woman on the basis of it being somehow about me strikes just as hollow as the idea that a painting about woman would be inherently something I’d want to look at. And yet games that take on these goals of “broader representation,” with varying degrees of sincerity and success, are usually seen as the solution to demographic imbalance and people who say they just don’t play games.
I’ve played videogames since before I could form cogent memories of them. I haven’t played many of the more popularly discussed games in this vein. In most cases, they’re not accessible to me. Let me talk about my “gaming rig” for a second. It’s an ASUS laptop I got for $400 a little over two years ago. It replaced a refurb Dell laptop that I had used for almost four years before the hard drive failed, as they are wont to do when you have to carry your laptop with you through bumps and jostles of regular travel and several moves. I have a 3DS. I technically own a PS3 but it’s not with me. Since I don’t have my own TV or room for it in my apartment it’s kept at my parents house. My laptop is where 90% of my gaming happens, and the other 10% is Animal Crossing and Neko Atsume. Basically, either I don’t have the console or my own computer can’t run many of these titles that are supposedly extending gaming’s audience beyond people who already play games.
Undertale worked perfectly on my laptop, though. Whenever a 2D game becomes the indie darling of the month I’m always a little happier because I know I’ll be able to participate without my laptop going hot enough to fry an egg. While I found Undertale incredibly accessible, and so did a lot of its fans, others didn’t. My own jokes about having “sausage fingers” and willingness to die a thousand times (okay, not necessarily, but I did get the price of Temmie Armor down to only 750 G) to finally manage to progress is a gameplay pattern related to the “bullet hell” genre of game from which Undertale borrows bits of its battle system, and is a type of play others find completely alienating. Likewise, the logic of the game’s humor and puzzles also work from a certain base that will, of course, seem inaccessible to other players.
Accessibility is a multi-dimensional factor and no one work will be totally accessible to everyone. Inaccessibility in one respect or another is not necessarily damning, but it is a valid point of criticism, and if your stated aim is to expand the scope or audience of games in general, doubly so. Here I’ve mostly discussed practical/material and conceptual forms of accessibility, but forms that address disability, language barriers, and the usability of the tools to create and respond to works that one has taken in are also large, complex, important subjects that I, as an able-bodied English speaker who primarily expresses herself through writing, am probably not qualified to go on about.
Undertale makes no great effort to sell itself to a traditionally non-games audience. It’s an RPG where you don’t have to kill anyone, sure, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t fairly difficult combat, and that a foreknowledge of the RPG as genre is assumed. In spite of these barriers, I found it accessible on other levels, from the fact that it’s a very lightweight game in terms of what hardware it requires, to the fact that you can help two awkward, dorky monster girls with a crush on each other finally have a much-deserved beach date in the end. For me, many of art studio Tale of Tales’ works are inaccessible, on the other hand, despite their female leads and slower-paced gameplay. I just can’t justify spending up to 20 dollars on a game for which my computer’s specs are dubious at best, and I know many 20-something, tech savvy women like myself who are, nevertheless, in the same position in terms of what they can and cannot play. In the end, it is often the latter sort of games, regardless of the quality of their content, that are just out of out reach to a lot of us, and yet become the ones that are canonized and discussed in terms of broadening artistic scope and inclusivity, which seems paradoxical.
There’s a tendency to see artgames/altgames/indie or what have you as outside of the mainstream “Games Canon,” and in many ways they are. But they’re also not immune to canonization. As soon as a movement becomes coherent and needs to look back on itself to move forward, the process starts. It’s self-preservation, and it’s also a gamble that sacrifices one form of accessibility in favor of another form that may or may not serve the original intended ends. What seemed like a tendency outside of the mainstream, outside of any institution, is now having exhibitions devoted to it and books written about it, and a definite narrative is emerging. If we want this inevitable canon to be meaningfully accessible, it’s time to consider the multiple dimensions of that concept.